Obama's Wrong Turn in Afghanistan

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The Nation

Obama's Wrong Turn in Afghanistan

by
John Nichols

Running for president is a perilous endeavor. Candidates make mistakes.

And Barack Obama is making a serious mistake this weekend.

As he tours Afghanistan, the senator from Illinois says he is "more interested in listening than doing a lot of talking."

That would be good if it were the case.

Unfortunately, Obama is busy making promises.

After meeting with the Democratic presidential candidate inside the US base in Jalalabad, Afghan warlord turned provincial governor Gul Agha Sherzai told reporters, "Obama promised us that if he becomes a president in the future, he will support and help Afghanistan not only in its security sector but also in reconstruction, development and economic sector."

Translation: Obama is not listening. He is making commitments.

Specific commitments.

Despite the fact that there are more foreign troops in Afghanistan today than at any time since the 2001 invasion -- roughly 60,000 total, including 36,000 Americans - Obama is proposing to dispatch two more US combat divisions (comprising more than 7,000 soldiers) to Afghanistan. That will give the United States even greater responsibility for a technically NATO-led ooccupation.

The Democrat's send-more-troops proposal is precisely the same as that of Republican John McCain.

And it is precisely wrong.

Dramatic increases in the US troop presence in Afghanistan in the past year have done nothing to stabilize the situation on the ground in the country. In fact, US military officials acknowledge that attacks in eastern Afghanistan -- the sector of the country where the majority of US forces currently operate -- are up by 40 percent so far in 2008.

So, too, as recent events remind us, are US and Afghan death tolls.

More troops will not cure what ails Afghanistan.

That's because, even though the cover of the latest edition of Time magazine refers to the fight in Afghanistan as "The Right War," and even though Obama seems to have bought into this particularly dangerous variation Washington-insider spin, there is nothing right or smart about deepening the US troop commitment in a country that has a long history of thwarting the best-laid plans of great military powers.

The US media and political class has never focused very seriously on the war in Afghanistan.

But in Canada, which was smart enough to keep out of Iraq, but not smart enough to keep out of Afghanistan, there has been much more attention to the conflict.

That attention has fostered a serious movement calling for bringing Canadian troops home.

More than a year ago, the opposition New Democratic Party called for "an immediate safe and secure withdrawal of (Canadian) troops from the counter-insurgency mission and to focus our assistance, not through counter-insurgency but through development and aid."

"The combat role is the wrong role for Canada and it's not making life more secure for Afghans," declared Jack Layton, the NDP's parliamentary leader.

The NDP leader and other Canadian critics of the country's military presence in Afghanistan argue, correctly, that while foreign forces have been training Afghan army and police units since the conflict began, the security situation in Afghanistan has not improved.

The Canadians suggest that one of the big problems is the fact that the foreign presence in the country is a too-narrowly defined military occupation directed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, rather than a broader, more-thoughtfully conceived mission under the leadership of the United Nations.

"Instead of extending a strategy that isn't working, Canada must aim to support and facilitate efforts towards the peaceful resolution of the Afghan conflict," says veteran parliamentarian Alexa McDonough, the NDP's spokesperson on international development issues.

Argues McDonough: "Canada should lead the international community towards a political solution, not continue the failed military approach. This means the international body in charge should be the United Nations, not NATO."

Instead of making ill-thought commitments of additional US troops to another quagmire, Barack Obama should be listening to the wise critique from engaged Canadians regarding a misguided and misdirected foreign military presence in Afghanistan.

John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written The Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

Copyright © 2008 The Nation

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